Alison Healy on overdue library books – The Irish Times

The recent death of veteran actor Philip Baker Hall was a reminder to revisit the old Seinfeld episode where he played a library investigations officer. The appropriately named Mr Bookman was on the case of library delinquent Jerry Seinfeld who had failed to return a book he had borrowed 25 years earlier.


Although Philip Baker Hall’s appearance on the show was brief, his book detective made such an impact that practically every obituary referred to his star turn.

He was the hero of librarians everywhere, fighting the good fight against people who waltzed into New York Public Library without shoes, and drew genitalia in Cat in the Hat books. But his main business was chasing down punks who didn’t return library books and making them cough up hefty fines.

Poor Mr Bookman would be twiddling his thumbs if he were still working today now that many libraries have finished with fines. They were removed in Ireland in January 2019, which was just as well for the person who returned a book to Gweedore library in May of that year.

The White Owl, by Annie MP Smithson, had been checked out almost 82 years earlier, on July 23rd, 1937. It was found in an attic during a house clearance in Falcarragh. Now stored away safely in Letterkenny library, it will go on public view for Culture Night in September. It might also serve as a gentle reminder that it’s never too late to do the right thing.

That book was only slightly overdue when you consider the lackadaisical book-borrowing habits of our nearest neighbors. The Guinness Book of Records claims that the record for the most overdue library book was set by Col Robert Walpole who borrowed a book from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge university around 1667. It didn’t return for 288 years.

I’m sure you’re wondering what book could be so riveting that it couldn’t be parted with for nearly three centuries? It was, of course, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum septentrionalium, vicinorumque populorum diversi (Various historians of the Northern Germans and of neighbor peoples). I doubt there was a queue of people waiting anxiously to read that potboiler.

His son, also Robert, went on to become the first prime minister of Britain and there is no evidence that he inherited his father’s delinquency when it came to book borrowing. Nor did Col Walpole’s biographer, Dr JH Plumb. It fell to him to do the decent thing and return the book to Cambridge after he found it in the colonel’s papers while researching the biography.

I don’t know if the book ever helped Col Walpole in his endeavors but it’s likely that another overdue book helped its borrower. The Microscope and its Revelations, a 700-page doorstopper, was borrowed from the library of Hereford Cathedral School by a teenage Arthur Edwin Boycott in 1894. It was returned by his 77-year-old granddaughter, with apologies, 122 years later.

After he read that book on microscopes, Arthur Boycott grew up to become a distinguished professor of pathology and a naturalist. And unlike his unpopular namesake, Capt Boycott, the professor lent his name to a more positive phenomenon. The Boycott Effect describes the effect responsible for the way bubbles sink in a pint of Guinness. It followed a discovery he made while observing the sedimentation of red blood cells.

With all those weighty science matters on his mind, he can be forgiven for forgetting to return his book. But it’s more difficult to forgive those book borrowers who use unorthodox bookmarks.

If a reasonable person doesn’t have a bookmark to mark their place in a book, they might use a slip of paper, perhaps a receipt. Not in the US, where several librarians have complained about patrons using processed cheese slices as bookmarks. What were they reading? A collection of poetry from WBrie Yeats? Waiting for Goda?

This cheesy controversy came to light a few years ago after US writer Anna Holmes pleaded on Twitter for people to stop the practice. She said one Washington DC library branch had encountered three cheese bookmarks. Other librarians weighed in with the strange items they found as bookmarks. There was a small circular saw blade, a gnawed chicken leg and many banana skins. But most of all, there was an disturbingly high number of bacon strips used as bookmarks, both cooked and uncooked.

Happily for Irish librarians, food bookmarks appear to be an American phenomenon. Irish readers prefer to leave memoriam cards and bus tickets in their books.

Probably the most shocking thing you could find in an Irish library book these days would be a recent electricity bill. Ten times scarier than discovering an Easi Single.

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